Varenne: commented quotes from Mead (1951)

Margaret Mead

The school in American culture

Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951.

The anthropologist deals with tradition as it is embodied in the living habituated bodies of the human beings who make up the society which shares that tradition--in their gestures, their words, their expectations, in the images which the words evoke in speaker and in listener... The schoolhouse would be mapped and charted, the places of each pupil in school noted so that one would know what happened between the larger and the smaller children, the weak-eyed or the nimble-witted, the laggard and the scholar. (p. 1-2)

this is an excellent example of the classical pragmatic definition of culture including both practice and constituted selves. Note however the methodological follow-up: not an investigation of the selves in an American school, but rather a mapping of differentiated people and places and their relationships in everyday activities!

But then of course she talks altogether circularly about

... the common experience which we can call American ... because we hold in common a way of perceiving and understanding experience which is our culture. (p. 2)

And then she goes on to illustrating capsules of schools in China or Easter Judaism in which she mentions details about status and roles,

sights, sounds, smells, balance of give and take in the relations between teachers and pupils .... (p. 4)

This is followed by a summary of

American ideas of the teacher ... compounded from both stereotype and actual experience, ... in song... the teacher met on the tourist ship, as well as the teacher of one's own children... (p. 4)

Followed in turn by a simple structural analysis of markedness: An American Teacher, by default, is not

male..., married..., Catholic..., neither young nor old, of no particular ethnic group... Like so many symbols... it stands both fo a desirable state ... and for a past ... which has been lost (p. 5-9)

It is not that there no teachers with these attributes in the United States, but teachers with any of these characteristics will have them mentioned specifically.

This is followed by a similar structural analysis of the school though this one is not specifically based on summarizing stereotype so much as in an analytic ordering of observable schools. Three types of schools are mentioned that one might represent in the shape of a triangle a la Lévi-Strauss.

... the loved ... image of the little red schoolhouse, the worried-over image of the city school, and the [ambivalent] image of the private academy. (p.11)


[rest of text]

July 22, 2001